This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “Riverrun Alley.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
This story was first published at MarsDust, July 2003. Watch for cameos from creatures and people from some of my other stories and novels!
In the ramshackle slum of Riverrun Alley, just east of the City of All-Worlds, winter started early and stayed longer than an uninvited guest, and Tockle the otherworlder was beginning to doubt he’d ever see spring. Perched on the edge of his sleeping mat, he tried to remember a day in his new world without bitter cold and searing wind. But the tall blue being from Quantock was cursed with a painfully short memory, and he couldn’t remember what he had eaten last night, much less what life had been like before he entered the Portal that led to Subaridon.
Unfolding his body with a crackling like dead branches breaking, Tockle stepped outside of his hut and checked a wrinkled sheet of well-used paper with his day’s tasks scribbled on them. He’d barely finished reading his first chore when one of the two Hagarupk brothers living in the shack next door ran into him.
“Tock!” Grex shouted. “What is doing today?”
“I have work to do on the Old Walls,” Tockle said. He shivered and pulled his hood tight over his bald head. “Then I’m meeting a friend at Andros’ Bar. If you help me, we can finish early.” He gave Grex a weary smile, noticing the way the hairy boy was shaking—either hunger or withdrawal from the drugs he and his brother indulged in. “And lunch will be my treat.”
“Deal,” Grex said, slapping Tock on the back harder than was needed.
With snow falling around them, Tockle and Grex walked south through the twisting paths of Riverrun Alley, waving and nodding to the other slum dwellers they passed. South of the Zither River and east of the locked and guarded City walls, the Alley was a mish-mash of shacks, boxes, and lean-tos huddled together for warmth. Dirt paths trickled and shifted around the parasitic growths of discarded wood and synthetic brown boards. The only constants were the boundaries of the river and the City walls, and the lights of Andros’ Bar on the northern riverbank.
With snow falling around them, they arrived at Tockle’s work site after nearly a dozen references to his scribbled directions. For two weeks’ worth of food, Tockle had agreed to break pieces of the Old Walls into gravel and haul the gravel the River. He picked up a rock and began smashing. There was always work to do, food money to be earned.
“Max has seller at West Gate,” Grex began, watching Tockle work. “Seller put stuff under wagon, Max and buddies hit driver. I grab Blur when driver not looking. Funny stuff, huh?”
“I guess,” Tockle said. Through the falling snow, he looked over at Grex’s furry smile and had to laugh from his front-mouth. His side-mouths were inhaling deeply, helping him draw strength from the thin air as he laughed. The heat from his exertions had chased away the cold and most of the bad feelings that had been haunting him since the start of winter.
Tockle knew the boys –- Max in particular -– were addicted to the pulse-tripping temptation of Blur, sold in the cheap southern taverns far from Andros’ Bar but close to the City walls. Tockle could imagine the havoc the drug was wreaking on the boys’ bodies, making them move four to five times faster than their normal speed, their hearts racing as Blur kicked their nervous systems into overdrive.
“Why do you do it?” he asked Grex. “Take Blur, that is. Isn’t there something better you could be doing? Working, maybe, or helping the Guard?”
“Help King’s Guard?” Barking laughter, Grex almost fell off the chunk of ruined wall where he sat. “Good joke, Tock. King’s Guard help get Grex killed.”
Tockle slammed the big rock he held in his hands down onto another section of wall, disintegrating it. The gravity of Quantock had been almost five times that of Subaridon. “I’m not joking. Keep using that stuff and it’ll kill you.”
Grex was silent and unmoving for a long moment, nearly the longest Tockle had seen him that way since they’d met that past summer.
“Why use the Blur? To forget,” Grex said at last. “To forget we never fight for Hagurupk back home. To forget we stuck here, forever. That why we Blur, Tockle. To forget.”
Tockle stopped in mid-swing. He felt a cold wind blow from the north, rushing down at them from the Herders’ Hills beyond the slum. Looking up, he saw that the sun was at the top of the sky.
I am supposed to meet someone for lunch, Tockle thought suddenly, fumbling in his vest pocket for his paper. Fertig. Of course.
“Come,” he said. “Lunch time.”
On their walk back through the Alley to the tavern at the northern edge of Riverrun Alley, as the cold came back to fill his bones with ice, Tockle could still hear Grex’s voice, clear in Tockle’s unreliable memory: That why we Blur. To forget.
* * * * *
In the gray noon light, Tockle and Grex approached a ramshackle building lit from inside by lights of many colors, as if it contained fires of blue, green, orange, and red at every corner. Dangling from the off-kilter front door was a sign reading “Andros’ Bar.” Below the careful block letters of the tavern’s name were messages scratched in three different languages. All three said “All beings welcome. No credit.”
“Fertig!” Tock said, knocking his fist on the black wood of the bar in front of a tiny, squid-like being. The glistening, three-foot-tall creature was perched on a box balanced on a bar stool. “It’s good to see you again, my friend. You remember Grex, of the Hagurupk?”
A ringlet of eyes turned to Tockle, and then looked Grex up and down. Three of the creature’s six tentacles waved in Tockle’s direction, and then the creature picked up a shot glass of water and poured it over its oblong head. Fertig the Squibble was in a mood.
“Ten minutes late,” Fertig squeaked, “and you bring this brute. Last time I saw him, he and his brother were harassing the local traders and avoiding any sort of paying work.”
“Fertig,” Grex said with a growl. “I growed up, huh?”
“Growed out is more like it, from the size of your gut.”
“Okay boys,” Tockle said, waving at Andros’ shadow behind the bar. “Enough bickering. Lunch is on me today. And so are drinks, if you’re so inclined.”
“Gents,” a deep voice said. A blue shadow outlined in glinting white light stood waiting on the other side of the bar.
“Drinks for my friends, Andros,” Tockle said, squinting to see the wraith-like tavern owner properly. “I’d like to get three bowls of your best stew as well, along with a loaf of your grainiest bread. And some extra water for the Squibble, if you please.” Fertig and Grex ordered their drinks, and Andros slipped away.
Tockle turned to Fertig. “So. What’s news?”
Fertig did his best to shrug his non-existent shoulders, his tentacles rippling. “The river might freeze solid if the cold keeps up. Wouldn’t be good -– you heard about the wild dogs at this time of year? They’re hungrier than us, and twice as mean as any Hagurupk.”
Grex waved him off and drank the ale Andros had silently placed in front of him.
“And it’s been snowing all week,” Tockle said. The feeling of dread mixed with sadness from earlier that morning had returned. “I don’t know how people can survive winters here.”
“Not much choice,” Fertig said, and Grex nodded for the first time in agreement. “Though there’s always the celebration us Squibbles have in the River to look forward to, so long as it doesn’t freeze up on us. Only five more days.”
Fertig dumped another shot glass of water over his head. It soaked into his skin before it could reach the box or the barstool below him. “Yeah. We all get together to celebrate the shortest day of the year. At mid-winter. We get drunk, make wild Squibble love, and wrap our tentacles ‘round each other until the sun comes up again.” He gave a squeaky laugh. “Come on, Ol’ Blue. Don’t you pay attention to the other races ‘round here?”
“I’ve been living in the City,” Tockle said, knowing how hollow his explanation must sound to his friends. “Plus my memory’s not…”
“Not hardly there, yeah, I know,” Fertig said. “Buy me another drink, will ya, Ol’ Blue?”
Tockle snapped four sets of fingers. Ignoring the Squibble’s suggestion, he grinned at Grex and turned back to his small, tentacled friend. “So tell me, Fertig. How does this celebration work?”
* * * * *